Perhaps no film has been as eagerly anticipated at the Cannes Film Festival than Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. It's not simply because the Illinois-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker has directed what some posit as verifiable classics in the pantheon of auteurist cinema—Badlands and Days of Heaven (for which he won the Best Director award in Cannes in 1979)—it's also due to the now-typical sluggish pace at which the reclusive director births a film. Malick began shooting Tree of Life in 2008, and many in the film business believed Malick's two-hour opus on the meaning of life set against the backdrop of fifties Texas might have been ready for last year's Cannes Film Festival. Alas, the plainspoken (when he chooses to speak, that is) Austin, Texas, resident apparently demands projects germinate in the editing room for a few years. Thus, the film made its world premiere at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on Monday, May 16. And judging by the press reaction no clear consensus emerged—quite a chorus of loud boos were heard, followed by over-zealous applause as the credits began to roll.
For hardcore Malick aficionados, the ones who think The New World is perfection and The Thin Red Line is flawless, Tree will simply be yet more proof that Malick is an auteurist genius. For those like me who have serious reservations about most of his films, it's nearly impossible to not proclaim Malick guilty until proven innocent. The Thin Red Line had some amazing moments, but it suffered from heavy overediting; watching it felt like a chore. The New World was downright miserable, with some excellent imagery. Now, six years after that debacle, he's back with his best work in decades—maybe his best film ever; he's been proven innocent.
The film's central narrative is relatively simple: It's the late fifties in Waco, Texas, and the rock-jawed Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) instills strict discipline over his three scrapping sons. A Malick trademark is vagueness, and he hews especially close to that in his characters—we're not sure what Mr. O'Brien does, but he seems to be a pretty successful airline engineer and amateur inventor.
Though the family lives in an upper-middle class home, much of the action takes place outdoors: The three boys help out around the garden and yard, play in the street (getting especially excited when a truck sprays mini-mushroom clouds of DDT), and learn self-defense and the art of boxing from their über-strict father. Dad raises his sons with an iron fist and tries to instill qualities that will make them leaders. Jack, the eldest and most rebellious of the three, often bears the brunt of his father's discipline—he's made to quietly open and close the screen door 50 times as punishment; he gets a whoopin' when he tells his dad to "be quiet." Eventually young Jack snaps and can no longer take the weight of being Oldest Child; he eschews his father's crushing and unflinching worldview. So sets in motion the kind of complicated, tortured father-son relationship that has dogged filmmakers and artists for millennia.
Pitt deftly tackles the role of O'Brien—he's seamlessly weaves between rigid patriarch and doting, caring Dad. Pitt has played many outsized, complicated personas: a nihilistic killer in Kalifornia; the psychotic scion of a scientist in Twelve Monkeys; a preposterous (and hilarious) fitness guru and personal trainer in Burn After Reading. While he was generally pretty excellent in the aforementioned films, he blows them out of the water with Tree. Simply put, Brad Pitt has never been better on screen; it's a bespoke role that couldn't have been played by anyone else.
And he was dealt a complicated hand. The film's turning point comes on bright summer day. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain in a largely forgettable performance) receives a telegram informing her that her middle son, the artist and guitar player, has been killed—we're not sure where or how, but it seems as if he's perished in the Vietnam War. The death becomes the catalyst for a dizzying journey through the cosmic universe, the space-time continuum, the birth of the planets, and the kill-or-be-killed world of the dinosaurs (!)—all seemingly questioning life's origins and meaning.
Scenes from current-day pop up: A grown-up Jack, played with torpid sadness by Sean Penn, is a big-time somebody doing something. His office sits atop a high-tech, glass structure that screams modernity—it couldn't be farther away from the innocence of fifties Waco. Jack's a "success," as defined by material goods and the power's he's accrued, but he's rudderless, lost, morally and spiritually. Jack's aching, he's a mess of a human being; he ping-pongs throughout his office complex, befuddled—appearing like the victim of some kind of man-made disaster. In once scene, Jack is talking on the phone to his father as a flurry of office assistants blow by and computers buzz and cell phones ding: He's apologizing to Dad, for saying things "he didn't mean." (At that scene, I was dying to see what Mr. O'Brien would have looked liked in modern day. Maybe Benjamin Button when he was two years old.)
Malick being Malick, however, he merely uses this thinnest thread of a story as a jumping-off point to delve into questions complex: religion, life, generational disconnectedness, fathers and sons. The film crosscuts between shots of outer space and the swirling Milky Way—with one incredible sequence of two oddly shaped dinosaurs roaming planet Earth. These dinosaurs play tag, but then get angry with each other, and one steps on the face of the other. It's just like what might happen when two kids play in the yard. The dinosaur footage and the incredible shots of outer space immediately bring to mind Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It's hard to say Tree is an outright, unmitigated success—it's clearly the best thing he's done since Days of Heaven, and the more I think on it, the film is actually better; Malick's touch of brilliance as a filmmaker has never been storytelling (I defy anyone to lay out a cohesive plot of The Thin Red Line), rather, it's his ability to purposely confuse and distort all in the attempt to tackle ethereal subjects and take a shot at answering the unanswerable. Indeed, looking at the film through that lens, it succeeds, though perhaps the point Malick drives home the strongest may be the most shoulder-shrugging: No matter how much we try to control life—how much we try to make sure our kids color within the lines, wipe their feet, and be polite—the universe and its unknowable knowns are the final arbiter of life's course. And there will always exist a labyrinthine relationship between fathers and sons.
Tree of Life opens nationwide on May 27, 2011.